Monday, April 16, 2012

NHL: No Honor League?

The first round of the playoffs have taken a turn beyond nasty.

Cheap and classless are two words that come to mind.

Suspensions and fines have been rampant even though most teams having played only three games in their respective first round matches.

One can only wonder how bad it is going to get.

The nastiness- no- the dirty play started in the first game of the playoffs as Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators went WWF on Henrik Zetterberg, slamming his head into the glass after Zetterberg hit him from behind at the boards at the end of the game. Weber got off light with a $2,500 fine.

He should have been suspended.

That was just the start.

Carl Hagelin of the Rangers elbowed the Senators Daniel Alfredsson in the head and earned a 3 game suspension because Alfredsson was injured on the play.

Matt Carkner of the Senators was suspended for one game for pummeling Brian Boyle of the Rangers, who refused to fight back and was down on the ice.Zenon Konopka was fined $2,500 for verbal abuse of the Rangers during a a pre-game television interview and the Sens were fined $10,000 for his actions.

Craig Adams of the Penguins was suspended for instigating a fight in the late minutes of game 3 of the Penguins/Flyers series. More hearings are pending for James Neal and Aaron Asham for their actions in the same game.

Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks has a hearing pending for his violent collision with Phoenix Coyotes netminder Mike Smith.

This type of play has kept Brendan Shanahan busy and left even the most seasoned hockey fan shaking their head.

Much anger has been directed toward Shanahan for his disciplinary decisions and for the perceived inconsistency between the various punishments meted out.

That anger is misdirected.

Instead, fans should look to the ice and the type of play that teams are bringing to their games and to the officials that are charged with keeping the game within the boundaries of the rules.

Each of the aforementioned incidents have a common thread.

A lack of respect.

Not only for the players on the ice but for the game itself.

Throughout the season, the League and the officials sent a message to the players regarding head shots and dangerous plays that there would be zero tolerance, and for the most, did a reasonable job of enforcing that standard. The desire and the effort to protect the players was commendable and generally effective. Violators were punished and players began to adjust their game.

Underlying the effort to protect the players was a message from the League that players had to "respect" each other and not engage in dangerous, borderline types of plays.

That has gone out the window in the playoffs.

There is no doubt that the playoffs are a war of attrition, and that physical play ramps up. There is no problem with that. That is playoff hockey, and that type of play makes the playoffs and the road to the Cup the greatest championship in professional sports.

Part of the ethic of hockey is "sending a message" through physical play. Between the whistles, there is no problem with that. Clean checks, hard hits, and legally aggressive play are all part of  sending a message. Want to really send a message? Put the puck into the opponents net.

What has happened in the playoffs so far is that "sending a message" had devolved into cheap shots after the whistle, scrums after every whistle that result in punches and unnecessary extracurricular activity, and questionable hits and fights.

All of which shows a lack of respect for the players by the players and for the game. The type of play that fans have witnessed from some teams and players fails to honor the game of hockey.

Playoff hockey is intense, desperate hockey. Win or go home. What has happened in the first round of the playoffs is that desperation and intensity has crossed the line into nastiness and cheap shots.

If the players on the ice do not respect each other, player safety becomes moot. Unnecessary hits, dangerous hits are the norm. Crossing the line to send a message is accepted.

Culpability does not rest solely with the players. The officiating has been inconsistent, and the tendency of officials to swallow their whistles late in a game doesn't help. Letting the boys play hockey is an admirable goal, but the officials are letting the boys do more than play hockey.  Watch the action after a play. Some of the stuff that goes on after the whistle is, frankly, unacceptable, and it sets the tenor for many of the games. Start handing out penalties for the punches thrown in a scrum or the cross checks delivered in front of the net and see if some of this type of play doesn't quickly stop.

If the players cannot respect their opponent, then it rests with the officials to clearly define the boundaries of acceptable play and consistently enforce those boundaries. It worked to reduce the number of dangerous hits to the head in the regular season. It will work in the playoffs.

Physical play and hard hits are in the DNA of the game of hockey.  Again, there is no problem with that. Illegal hits and dangerous plays to send a message or gain and advantage are a dangerous mutation of that DNA.

The game is at an inflection point in these playoffs. Players have to begin to play with a level of respect that has too often been lacking in some of the contests. Officials have to take control of the game, especially what happens after the whistle. Fail to do so, and the League will be embarrassed on their biggest national stage.

Hockey is a beautiful game, and playoff hockey is the apex of this great sport. The nastiness, the cheap shots, the dangerous hits disrespect the game and the players involved.

And there is no honor in that.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Mark. Well said and worth the share.